LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - At the end of “Pirate Radio” — the 2009 feature film about a ‘60s illegal rock ‘n’ roll radio station in Europe’s North Sea — an array of albums is displayed: iconic symbols of musical independence that bucked the status quo. Among the albums on display is Public Enemy’s 1990 treatise, “Fear of a Black Planet.”
In a country still wrestling with the election of its first black president and ongoing racial tension, economic strife and war, “Fear” remains just as relevant 20 years after its release, alongside its three seminal singles: “Fight the Power” (immortalized in the Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing”), “Welcome to the Terrordome” and “911 Is a Joke.” And still sounding that clarion call is Public Enemy and its dedicated frontman, Chuck D.
Embarking on what will be its 69th, 70th and 71st tours this year, the pioneering rap group is as busy as ever. Through its SLAMjamz digital label (SLAMjamz.com), Public Enemy recently released the benefit album “Kombit pou Haiti,” with proceeds donated to the Lambi Fund in Haiti. Coming in the spring: a “Welcome to the Terrordome” three-CD/three-DVD boxed set encompassing live tracks, videos and documentaries from the past 12 years of PE’s work; a Chuck D solo album, “Mistachuck: Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’”; and “It’s Back to a Million of Us to Hold a Nation,” by PE backing band the baNNed. The forthcoming instrumental set reinterprets PE’s 1988 classic, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”
That’s not counting a radio show launched in November on WBAI.org — “AndYouDontStop!” — with plans to expand across the Pacifica Radio network and as a podcast on iTunes. Also in the works are three key ventures: SellaBand, a Web site where the general public can invest in artists (PE has raised more than $57,000 for its next album from investments in $25 increments); the Chuck D and Gary “G-Wiz” Rinaldo-created Web site HipHopGods.com, an archive site focusing on the history of classic rap; and FightThePower.org, a nonprofit company established by Chuck D to continue to fight for artists’ rights in terms of publishing, copyright and masters ownership.
In an interview with Billboard, Chuck D reflected on the creative climate that spawned “Fear,” PE’s early involvement in the Internet revolution and the evolution of rap and hip-hop.
Billboard: In terms of rap itself, who were your contemporaries when “Fear of a Black Planet” was born 20 years ago?
Chuck D: It was the golden age of hip-hop in terms of diversity and balance. Queen Latifah, N.W.A, Big Daddy Kane had all made their mark during what was probably the most diverse three- to five-year period. Artists carved their own niches, strove to be different from one another by creating their own molds. They weren’t affected by the marketing and promotional protocol of record labels that said, “In order for you to make the charts and get on TV, you have to be similar.”
When we toured in 1990 it was with Kid ‘N Play, Heavy D & the Boyz, Digital Underground, EPMD. Groups toured with each other who didn’t necessarily line up in their philosophies. It was the total extreme between one another. Then acts like Naughty by Nature came out in 1991 as introduced by Queen Latifah; Ice Cube’s solo record comes out in 1990 as he leaves N.W.A, so it was a turning point into the ‘90s.
When I said, “Welcome to the Terrordome,” it was an introduction to the ‘90s; that’s what that song is about. As we were getting into the ‘90s, it’s “Hey, OK, we made it through the terrordome, but there’s going to be a test for a lot of people like us.” And it was a test. And whether we got out of that decade unscathed is a point of debate because that was a rough decade on us. It affects us even to this point now.
Billboard: How so?
Chuck D: Well, we fell asleep for eight years with (President Bill) Clinton (laughs), and then got the hell smacked out of us with eight years of (President George W.) Bush. So now we have a year of President Obama and haven’t embraced that fully as a people, as a black demographic in this country. We’re kind of shell-shocked and don’t know where to start. Meanwhile, he’s up there on the dart board.
Billboard: So were opportunities missed then — and being missed now — in terms of bringing rap back to its socially conscious roots?
Chuck D: Obviously. Rice, bread and crumbs are all on the floor. But you’ve got to live on, persevere. You can’t give up the fight. Like Bob Marley said, you have to keep going forward. You have to try to inform as much as possible even though you might be going through a lot of mass distractions.
That was part of the purpose of us doing “Fear.” We knew it was going against the odds. But even though we signified and recognized a movement of people wanting to equip themselves with information to go forward, I think that became the far and the few. The climate we have now may not be as clear as it was in 1990 when you at least had people who said, “I know who I am and know where I want to get to. If somebody else gets there and they’re in my same bracket, I can dig that too. That’s cool; maybe they can pull me forward.” The individualism that happened between 1990 and 2010 has kind of left a lot of people way behind the starting line.
The go-for-self period in the ‘90s has a lot of people on the outside looking in. Music-wise, it was the beginning of the eradication of a wave of independence that really made certain acts stand out. The majors picked them and found the cookie cutter: “This is the way you make a big rap act.” It just became kind of contrived with the majors saying, “We’ve got 40,000 pieces of 12-inch vinyl that we’ve got to promote at college. So we’ll take maybe 550 cats from colleges, fly them to Hawaii and hit them off, then we’re going to tie up college radio.” So we go into a period when money was supposed to be the thing to fix everything. And that’s what it was: a big fix. And a lot of the passion started dripping out of the bottom of the boat at that particular time, although people started to see numbers.
That’s what “Fear” was saying: “It’s a black planet anyway. Once we know that, what are you going to do with it?”
Billboard: You were ahead of the curve when it came to the Internet. What prompted your jumping into those then-uncharted waters?
Chuck D: Public Enemy was the first group to walk away from a $1 million contract (when it left Def Jam after 1998’s “He Got Game”). What the hell is a $1 million contract when you don’t have control of your s—t? That $1 million is never going to be spent by you. It’s going to be spent on your behalf by someone who’s just pressing buttons and pushing numbers. And at the end of the day, you’ve got what? Because they’ve spent your money trying to make their profit while you’re working on a percentage. That’s one of the biggest reasons why I jumped into the Internet in 1996.
In 1999, “There’s a Poison Going On” was released on Atomic Pop Records, founded by Al Teller, who helped sign Def Jam to CBS. Singlehandedly, Public Enemy and Atomic Pop jump-started the digital revolution by releasing MP3 files over the Web. Then Napster emerged with the technology to explode the technology. A lot of people said I was nuts. Well, if a tree is at a 45-degree angle and it used to stand straight up, it doesn’t take much of a prediction to say it’s going to hit the ground. And that’s what we were saying: telling artists you can set up your own label online. And if you can also set up that record deal, do both.
It’s real funny because today I read magazines that talk about the top 100 Web sites, iPhone apps and other Web gadgets. This is not about me getting credit. But you hear a lot of things now about the Internet that were said 10 years ago.
Billboard: Why does “Fear” continue to have such impact?
Chuck D: “Fear” was the second half of a back-to-back “movement” of albums that immediately signified that rap could be as significant an album genre as rock, forcing respect. It was a musical and political statement that resonates to this day.
Rap and hip-hop altered the musical soundscape audibly and visually with shrapnel impact from many different directions. Beyond the music, the culture was ingrained into many hearts, heads and souls as an equalizer: The themes screamed for it and freedom. By the time “911 Is a Joke,” led by Flavor Flav, was released, hip-hop and Public Enemy proved that rap could say something and sound good — make you think and dance all at once.
Billboard: What’s your take on today’s rap/hip-hop? Where is it headed?
Chuck D: Rap and hip-hop evolved as the rebellious music against the elite status quo of dominant popular music. But it now sounds like the music it originally rebelled against. Once the price tag is applied as the ultimate goal, trueness can be elusive.
In the 1990s somebody smelled money and, just like with the gold rush, led a 15-year stripping of the ecosystem that the culture organically stood on. Maybe it should have been “Fear of a Rap Planet: Welcome to the Terrordome.” There are thousands of rap artists across MySpace, YouTube and Facebook who have adopted creative borders. But there are many more who have rejected them. Rap still has fantastic potential.